Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh
The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said Iranians are not Muslims as they follow Zoroastrianism - file photo REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

A day after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decried Saudi's poor management of the hajj pilgrimage and accused the authorities of killing Muslim pilgrims, Saudi Arabia shot back with its top cleric saying Iranians are not Muslims.

On Tuesday, 6 September, Saudi's Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Sheikh said Khamenei's allegations were hardly surprising, as Iranians are descendants of Majuws, a term to denote followers of Zoroastrianism. It is a religion predating Christianity and Islam and was predominantly followed in Persia before Arabs conquered it.

The Saudi preacher said: "We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuws, and their enmity toward Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is very old."

Ayatollah Khamenei on Monday said in comments published on his website that the "heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers — instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst. They murdered them." He made the remarks on the occasion of the anniversary of the hajj stampede that killed about 2,426 people, including 464 Iranians, which is the highest death toll any country had in the accident last year.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are regional rivals who support the opposite sides of war in Yemen and Syria and back rival political groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. The two countries also cut ties with each other in January, following the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric. Earlier this year, talks between the two Middle Eastern countries broke down over hajj security measures. Iran declared it will not send any of its citizens to the pilgrimage this year, which starts this weekend.

The Sunnis make up almost 85-90% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. In the Middle East, Sunnis make up 90% of the population in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while the Shias make up 10% of all Muslims, with a majority in countries like Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan.